Friday, June 26, 2015

Rockwell and Conservatism

One account of Rockwell has it that he was a semi-repressed "mere" illustrator throughout much of his career--prevented by the Saturday Evening Post from painting anything challenging or ugly.  But once he left the Post in the early 60's, he was able to follow his conscience and paint as he saw fit.  Hence, he found himself painting his well-known "civil rights" pictures, among other things.

On this view, much of Rockwell's work can be more or less discarded as somehow inauthentic, and Rockwell's status as an artist is secured principally by those few late pictures.

It is, I believe, common to consider the civil rights movement of the 60's as being somehow a "liberal" or "progressive" movement, launched against the oppressive forces of conservatism.  That strikes me as an absurd oversimplification.  But right or wrong, it seems prevalent--and applying that thought to the story about Rockwell I've just told would lead inevitably to thinking of Rockwell as a "liberal" or a "progressive," rather than as a "conservative."  (I use the scare quotes around these words because I find them too slippery to try to use without some kind of signal to that effect.  I don't know what a "liberal" is supposed to be, let alone what a "progressive" is supposed to be.  I do, however, have some shaky grip on how those words tend to be used in common parlance.  I'm just trying to use them more or less that way.  And hence, they don't really mean anything specific.)

Inferences follow: "if Rockwell was a progressive when he was alive, he'd be a progressive now, and hence he'd think such and such about issue X."  I don't like this kind of inference.  I see little point in it, for one thing.  But more, I doubt our evidence very often really supports inferences of such a kind--even if the evidence is generally fairly good.

And in this particular case, it isn't.  The narrative about Rockwell that I recited above strikes me as entirely wrongheaded, in all sorts of ways.  But the most important way in which it is wrongheaded is in its casual dismissal of the vast majority of Rockwell's work.  Rockwell constantly told us that he was fascinated by the "commonplaces," that he enjoyed the little things around him, and so on.  The pictures he made throughout his career were consistently pictures of regular people living their lives.  And these pictures often are profoundly conservative.

Whatever else is going on in this picture, it remains that it is a beautiful image of traditional small town life.  Are we to dismiss this image, pretend it's unimportant to understanding Rockwell's art?  If for no other reason than the obvious one--that this picture is far superior to the picture above it in this post, "The Problem We All Live With"--that would be a terrible idea.

Here is another classic, conservative, picture.  A traditionally male gathering place--the town garage--full of men and boys, welcoming home the obviously bewildered war hero.  There is a handing on of some collective wisdom here, the men who probably served in previous wars, listening to the man who served in the most recent war, in the presence of the boys who may, sadly, one day have to go off to war themselves.  These boys would have turned out to be the Vietnam generation, or perhaps, for the older boy, even the Korean War generation.  Note, though, that the picture is far from a naive celebration of this!  It's a tremendously sorrowful picture, though of course it is hopeful as well--hopeful in part because of the strong bonds of traditional community on display.  Rockwell's civil rights pictures don't hold a candle to it.

I resist any attempts to align Rockwell with any contemporary social or religious movements.  I resist, for example, the facile notion that Rockwell would be involved in "my" side of the various hotbutton social issues of the day.  I really couldn't say anything about that.  But I think it's important to keep his "conservatism" in mind, simply in order to properly understand the art.  What I mean is this: the same values that prompted Shuffleton and "Homecoming Marine," also prompted "The Problem We All Live With," or "Glen Canyon Dam."  In every case, the same underlying philosophy can be discerned.  He's singing the praises of more social cohesion.  If he's agitating for anything (and at least sometimes, he clearly is), then he's agitating for policies that recognize the dignity and fundamental equality of all; the protection of the small and defenseless against the large and powerful, and many other such things.

Perhaps the "progressives" will say, "those are our values!"  If progressives claim these values, I say, great!  I claim them, too, so that's all to the good--we agree on more than we might have guessed.  On the flip side, all too often people who we are supposed to label "conservative" are altogether on the side of gigantism and even globalization.  Rockwell isn't a conservative in that sense.  No more am I.

I am, however, a "conservative," I suppose.  And I am a defender of Norman Rockwell.  I don't have any desire to try to rope Rockwell into my conservatism in any way that goes beyond the evidence.  For example, I'm a pro-lifer.  Was Rockwell?  Would Rockwell be a pro-lifer if he were alive today?  I don't know the answer to either question.  More, as I suggested above, I don't think we could ever hope to know the answer to the second.

(Suppose there was evidence--letters, personal testimony from his children or friends, whatever--that Rockwell had come out in favor of Roe vs Wade back in the early 70's.  That would show us that at some point in his life he was at least in some sense a pro-abortionist.  And hence it would to some extent answer the first question.  But it wouldn't help to answer the second.  Who could guess what Rockwell would have made of all the developments in the more than 40 years since Roe?  There's no point in even speculating.  [There are, no doubt, cases where speculation does make sense: if a historical figure has clearly expressed certain principles, for example, together with a demonstrated ability to draw correct inferences from those principles, then one could imagine with some reliability what he might have thought about topic X, if some position about topic X definitely follows from that figure's principles.  But we needn't get too involved in such technicalities.  The point is just that in general I have no interest in trying out such inferences where Rockwell is concerned.])

So I don't intend to try to enlist Rockwell as being on my side in the current culture wars.  This is partly for the epistemic reason I've just talked about.  But more importantly, more deeply, it's because it's totally irrelevant to my whole interest in Rockwell.  I'm interested in his artwork.  I think you can't properly understand his artwork if you don't have some grasp on his worldview, on his values, on his ideas, etc.  And as I started out with here, I think there's a kind of general mistake out there in "Rockwell studies," according to which Rockwell is a "liberal."  I resist that thought.  As I've tried to point out above, his pictures strike me as remarkably "conservative"--and consistently so, including the later images.  And this matters not because it matters so much what Rockwell's political views were  (I don't really care!), but because--again--I see his work as having a real continuity and unity about it, whereas others have a lamentable tendency to divide his work into "early" and "late," and see the late works as his socially-conscious, "deep," "important" work.  This view gets Rockwell wrong--it distorts the work.  It's a mistake.  

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